Credit: Illustration by Susie Ghahremani

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John Jayson Sonnier’s sculptures are getting bigger. Much bigger. Sonnier, a Silver Spring artist and adjunct professor at the Corcoran College of Art & Design, used to show sculptures that weighed about 200 pounds. Now, he won’t exhibit anything in public that weighs less than 500. Why?

Because Sonnier is sick of his sculptures getting stolen.

Two of Sonnier’s pieces have disappeared since 2003. The first—a limestone-and-marble sculpture of a calla lily called Remembering O’Keeffe—was stolen from the Washington Square office building at 1050 Connecticut Ave. NW. A security camera recorded a man dressed in black spiriting the sculpture away under the cover of darkness. The thief was never identified, and the artwork remains missing.

Last spring, another Sonnier sculpture was stolen, this time from the National Institutes of Health. Petra Flora, composed of soapstone and granite, was purchased by the NIH in 2004 for $4,500. It sat outside the intensive-care unit on the third floor of the Mark O. Hatfield Clinical Research Center in Bethesda. Security cameras did not register the theft, says Crystal Parmele, art director for the Clinical Center Art Program. “Unfortunately, there’s been no record,” she says. “We don’t know if it was during a time that things were down for maintenance.” She adds that NIH officials waited to inform Sonnier of the theft in the hopes that the sculpture would turn up somewhere on the NIH’s Bethesda campus. Last month, Sonnier was finally informed that Petra Flora was gone.

Sonnier is beginning to wonder whether he’s being targeted. “NIH has one of the most secure facilities in the nation,” he says. “The piece at NIH was 200 pounds. It wasn’t a little trinket someone picked up. Someone definitely had to target [it].”

Now he’s considering taking down his Web site. “I’m wondering whether people are looking at my Web site and saying, ‘Oh. That’s a good piece. I’ll go get that one,’ ” he says. He’s also advising his customers to keep an eye out for bandits. He notes that Holy Cross Hospital in Silver Spring has enhanced the security for Gratitude, a large limestone-and-marble sculpture. “That piece is 1,500 pounds. Let’s hope no one takes that,” he says.

Sonnier calls art theft “a big, big deal,” especially for artists who show their work in heavily trafficked spaces like office buildings, restaurants, and cafes. But among artists who have had their work stolen from public spaces, Sonnier’s been relatively fortunate. The NIH had already purchased Petra Flora when it was stolen, and it was covered under the Institutes’ general insurance policy. He was also compensated for Remembering O’Keeffe under Washington Square’s insurance policy, which covers art up to $6,000. “In Sonnier’s case, the building owners assumed full responsibility for the security gap, and they compensated him for the full value of the stolen work,” Richard Suib, a design and art management consultant who organizes sculpture exhibitions at Washington Square, writes in an e-mail. “That’s probably $6,000 more than most other places, including commercial art galleries.”

Suib says that Washington Square Limited Partnership, the building’s owner, requires that artists execute a loan agreement when they display their works in the building. The agreement explains that there are risks involved in displaying the art. Suib says that in the past 12 years, approximately 2,000 works have gone on display at Washington Square and two sculptures have been stolen. Overall, he writes, “It’s a great opportunity for artists.”

Kate Higley, a D.C. artist, hoped to take advantage of just such an opportunity when she decided to show her work at a D.C. cafe. In February 2005, Higley consigned 22 monotypes to Ella’s Café and Art on North Capitol Street. Higley says that the owner, Renee Lewis, agreed to frame some of the artwork and to alert Higley if any of her pieces sold. Months passed without word. In June, Higley drove to Ella’s to check in and discovered that the shop was closed. “When I went there, the door was locked and there was a pile of mail,” she says.

Higley has spent the past two years trying to get her monotypes back. First she contacted the Multi-Door Dispute Resolution Division at D.C. Superior Court. With the help of the mediators, Higley says, it seemed she might get her artwork back by April 2006. Then, in March, Higley says, the mediators told her that Lewis had stopped returning their calls. “In fact, she’s flown the coop,” Higley says.

Higley contacted both the Metropolitan Police Department and filed an incident report in Montgomery County, where she believes the owner once lived, but she hasn’t been able to track her down. According to the report, she has lost $7,200 of artwork. She says her experience shows how hazardous showing art in restaurants can be. Though she signed a contract with Ella’s Café and Art, “the contract didn’t do me any good.…The contract isn’t enough if the person goes out of business.” Attempts to reach Lewis were not successful.

Torsten Kracht, an attorney with Akin Gump Strauss Hauer & Feld LLP who works with the Washington Area Lawyers for the Arts, says express contracts are an artist’s best protection, though they may not work in every case. “The most immediate protection for the artist may be an express contract with whomever is going to provide the space, that they’ll agree to indemnify the artist in case the work is lost or stolen,” he writes in an e-mail.

At the Adams Morgan coffee shop Tryst, artists sign “an informal contract” informing them that they “hang at their own risk,” says owner Constantine Stavropoulos. He says the coffee shop puts a premium on showcasing local artists and offers “them a reception on a Tuesday or Wednesday.…In return, we ask that they promote it.” Tryst also asks for a $100 deposit from artists to ensure that there is no damage to the shop associated with the shows. “We’ve never had to keep it,” he says.

D.C. sculptor Judith Richelieu says exhibitions in offices and restaurants come with a slew of risks, “but at the same time, as an artist, you have to do it” to get your work out in the public eye. Richelieu’s wood carving Fallen Flower was stolen from a Tysons Corner office building in July 2006. While her work was insured as part of the show, she says money can’t bring her art back. “I can never replace the wood I had. At first, I thought, I’ll carve another flower. But it’ll never be the same because it’s not the same log.”

Sonnier says his friends have commented that thievery might be the highest form of flattery. When his first piece was stolen in 2003, for example, “people were coming around to me saying you should be so proud of yourself. Now people are coming around and saying the same thing. It’s not so funny.”

Winds of Change

The 9:30 Club sucks. Or does it blow? Either way, something’s going on in the music club’s entrance. “You can actually feel this funky little breeze when you’re standing in front of the ticket booth,” says Dana Steinberg, a freelance writer who recently fell victim to the venue’s mysterious gusts.

A couple of weeks ago, Steinberg went to the 9:30 Club to buy $140 worth of tickets to see Pete Yorn and Rusted Root. She carefully counted the bills and handed them over to the woman working at the ticket booth, who then counted the cash and informed Steinberg she still owed $20. Steinberg was certain she had paid the full $140 but decided to hand over another $20 anyway.

Later that day, however, Steinberg called the 9:30 Club’s manager to complain that she was gypped. Tom Pelton, the club’s box office manager, informed her that the totals for the day had been accurate and no extra money had been found in or around the cash register at the close of business. “He then offered the most fascinating explanation as to what might have happened,” Steinberg wrote in an e-mail. “He said there is sometimes a wind tunnel by that ticket window, and perhaps my last $20 got sucked in.”

Pelton insists that Steinberg’s complaint was the first of its kind. But he says the air around the ticket booth has issues. “There is some suction,” he says.

Intrigued, S&T decided to visit the 9:30 Club. Appropriately enough, the event that night was Blowoff, a gay dance party. True to Steinberg’s description, it was a bit windy right in front of the ticket window.

Asked to explain where the wind comes from, the ticket booth operator explained it has to do with the establishment’s heater. Staffers are familiar with the phenomenon, she says, and keep a firm hand on money and tickets to prevent the breeze from carrying them away. “I love the club,” Steinberg says, but adds that from now on, she’s paying with a credit card.

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